Neurotechnologies

In short

Neurotechnologies directly involve the human brain in monitoring, assessing, emulating, and manipulating its function. One such example are brain computer interfaces that can support more intuitive control of prosthetic devices and relay sensory information back to users. Some key ethical concerns include how we can ensure humans retain their free will and autonomy, and privacy issues regarding sensitive data.

More about Neurotechnologies

This technology family regroups a number of technologies that directly monitor, assess, mediate, manipulate and emulate the structure, functions, and capabilities of the human brain.

They are expected to change existing medical practices and redefine clinical and non-clinical monitoring and interventions. For example, patients with degenerative motor conditions could be treated more efficiently by using neuro-devices that enable neuron regeneration through the stimulation of certain brain zones. Such neuro-devices are currently an object of research for treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, the consequences of strokes and severe trauma, and many other conditions.

Nevertheless, neurotechnology products and services trigger concerns, among others, about personal data privacy management, integrity and responsibility, and potential off-label and misuse of such technology. They also raise further issues around what has been called “neuro-determinism”: people assuming that our minds are our brains, whereas we are the product of so much more, including a lifetime of experiences.

Ethical, legal and societal challenges

TechEthos is concentrating its efforts on understanding the ethical, societal and legal consequences of Neurotechnologies – bringing on board the concerns of different groups of actors and looking at technologies from different perspectives.

Ethical issues

At this stage of the project, TechEthos partners have completed a scan of ethical guidance (in the form of codes, guidelines and frameworks) that already exist specifically for Neurotechnologies or considered relevant in ethical discussions on this technology family. They have also looked at some key ethical principles – autonomy, integrity, freedom, human rights, and privacy – and how they manifest in the academic literature on Neurotechnologies. The following is a short summary of the findings of the ‘Methodology for ethical analysis, scan results of existing ethical codes and guidelines’ report, which can be accessed in full via the button below.

Autonomy: The literature recognises autonomy (which is defined, for example, as the freedom to make one’s own choices by the OECD (2021)) as a central principle for Neurotechnologies. Examples of possible violations of autonomy could be being enrolled as a research subject without giving informed consent, having one’s identity threatened by Neurotechnologies, or becoming vulnerable to manipulation because of their use.

Freedom: In relation to Neurotechnologies, freedom is conceptualised by several academic sources as a fundamental type of freedom, control over one’s own consciousness.

Human rights are important in order to avoid individuals being harmed from the use of Neurotechnologies. This technology could have a dual use, for both civilian applications and military purposes such as torture during conflicts. In particular, the Data Science Institute at Columbia University proposes a new set of NeuroRights.

Integrity: Neurotechnologies could pose a threat to people’s mental integrity. In this respect, proposals focus on both the protection of physical integrity and that of any data that might result from the use of neurotechnologies.

Privacy: This is one of the most popular issues discussed in connection to Neurotechnologies, not just in relation to access to personal information but to actual access to bodies and the internal mental life of people. Who will own such data? What uses will be acceptable and how will this be regulated? What kind of protections can be put in place?

Please note that work is ongoing on this topic and the contents of this section will be updated as more information becomes available.

Read the report

Legal issues and challenges

TechEthos is reviewing the current state of the law and policy responses related to Neurotechnologies, as evidenced in policy, legislation, case law and regulation at the international, European and national (through nine national case studies) levels. We are looking at existing and proposed legal frameworks, as well as current legal debates about the future of legal governance. Our research will focus on legal issues with significant human rights and socio-economic impacts that are of high policy relevance, particularly in the European context. Through this research, we will be able to identify gaps and challenges in existing law, and propose ways to enhance legal frameworks for the future.

Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in the summer of 2022.

Media discourse

Media discourse on technologies both reflects and shapes public perceptions. As such, it is a powerful indicator of societal awareness and acceptance of these technologies. TechEthos is carrying out an analysis of the discourses on Climate Engineering in 13 EU and non-EU countries (Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA). The media analysis will complement insights into public awareness and perception obtained by engaging with members of the public.

Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in June 2022.

Applicable rules and guidance

TechEthos is considering the state of ethical and legal guidance and frameworks and will identify areas for improvement and make recommendations.

Ethical guidelines, frameworks and codes

At this stage of the project, TechEthos partners have completed a scan of ethical guidance (in the form of codes, guidelines and frameworks) that already exist specifically for Neurotechnologies or which are considered relevant in ethical discussions on this technology family. The following is a short summary of the findings of the ‘Methodology for ethical analysis, scan results of existing ethical codes and guidelines’ report, which can be accessed in full via the button below.

Ethical codes are referenced by several academic and research organisations as well as one intergovernmental organisation. The diversity of approaches is notable, from inviting companies to self-regulate to a set of clearly articulated principles to founding a new set of codes (such as the NeuroRights Initiative proposed by the Data Science Institute at Columbia University).

Ethical frameworks for Neurotechnologies were one of the most prolific areas investigated for the report, with several references from academia and other research organisations. Some authors focus on identifying gaps in existing frameworks and recommending further extensions. Others call upon neurotechnology ethical frameworks to be cross-fertilised with those from related fields, while some believe this might not be sufficient or appropriate, and some novel approaches are also available for consideration.

Ethical guidelines found in the literature span a range of different levels, from the efforts of specific research teams, to national efforts such as those of the Australian Brain Alliance, to regional and international efforts such as those of the European Union’s ethics guidelines for AI. Whether or not the current guidelines in place for medical devices are a good source of inspiration and principles for neuro-devices is an ongoing debate in the literature.

Read the report
Legal frameworks

TechEthos is reviewing the current state of the law and policy responses related to Neurotechnologies, as evidenced in policy, legislation, case law and regulation at the international, European and national (through nine national case studies) levels. We are looking at existing and proposed legal frameworks, as well as current legal debates about the future of legal governance. Our research will focus on legal issues with significant human rights and socio-economic impacts that are of high policy relevance, particularly in the European context. Through this research, we will be able to identify gaps and challenges in existing law, and propose ways to enhance legal frameworks for the future.

Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in the summer of 2022.

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TechEthos has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 101006249. This website and its contents reflect only their authors' view. The Research Executive Agency and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.